We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world . . .
-- Wendell Berry, “Remembering that it happened once”
I know some nurses who do this fifty times a day. Me, half a dozen or so.
The founder of our work, Anton Boisen, spoke of our patients as “living human documents.” The words imply a task – we are to read these documents. They are scripture – the place we start from. We do not come to the door – we ought not – to reveal the truth but to be present at it. When we go through the door we enter another world.
Reading scripture is difficult. Both words are difficult: reading and scripture.
Scripture is difficult because, though we must start there, it is never the beginning. It is uncanny, but its uncanniness is always already smudged. The papyrus has rotted, the letters have faded, the scribe was inattentive, the copyist mistook marginal notes for text, the translator lacks the voice of dead language, the church father smears timeless surface with wash of his time, the pastor intones the Word with concupiscence of institution. When I was a child it was impious to abandon the sonorous erroneous Shakespearian language of the King James Bible; now fundamentalists arm themselves with snappy modern versions. The essence of idolatry is to mistake the smudge for what was smudged; to declare sacred what separates us from the sacred. Like a devotee of vinyl who can’t hear truth unless its contrasts are compressed and overlaid with a needle’s hiss, we worship the Veil.
Our living documents are no more perfect than ourselves. Their living both reveals and smudges the spark of creation. We come into their presence with sandals removed. Shema! is the ancient command, not just to listen but to “hearken” – to listen and obey. But what is our obedience? Not just to accept, but to argue. Jonah argued; Job argued; Moses argued. You argue not because you know the truth but because you do not, because truth is never delivered, like the head of a prophet, on a platter. So as the document unwinds, you hear the voice with suspicion. Inwardly agnostic to the claim of devotion, you postpone the awe. This other world, as the poet says, is our world. You owe it at least as much care as you give to this one. You probe. You explore. You experiment. You hypothesize. Have I got it right? If you fear to be wrong, you will never see the right. Is it this? Is it that? What if . . . ? “No” begins the world. Criticism’s disarmament offends God.
It all comes down to reading. This too is a difficult word. Reading is never of marks in themselves but of marks reaching out toward what they signify. Reading peels back the surface of delivered text, which is always a secondary revision, to what lies behind it but which in turn is always to be read. There’s no end to this reading. That’s how you know it’s holy.
The poet proposes a vision of Holy Family. In a world where it happened once, he says, we can’t be sure, going through any familiar door, it won’t happen again. We don’t know that it hasn’t happened, or that we didn’t fail to see it. The other world is this one, prosaic and unique. Our place is “Holy, though we knew it not” – because at any given moment it could be holy.
True children of Enlightenment, people of my faith hate hierarchies, queasy at the thought that anyone should have a special place in creation. We democratize the birth. “So the children come,/ And so they have been coming./ . . . . Each night a child is born is a holy night,” wrote Sophia Lyons Fahs, and her words are spoken in many of our churches on Christmas Eve. The sacredness of birth is universal, and this one birth no more no less. But no one birth in the endless procession is mere statistic. Each transforms the world. Each is Good News to all people of good will. Each is the unique child of God. Looking into new eyes, we see the sky crack open, and we are sore afraid.